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Recently read: Taliban

[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on April 4, 2009
Tags: book_reviews

Ahmed Rashid. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil & Fundamentalism in Central Asia

At the end of the 1990s, Ahmed Rashid finally got around to distilling two decades of reporting about Afghanistan into a book. It turned out to be an valuable resource, an insightful and crisply written account of the rise of the Taliban. It was a good bet when it was published in 2000, however, that the book would end up as ignored as the troubled country ruled over by the Taliban. But of course in the fall of 2001 the world found itself suddenly riveted by the country and the movement that had not long ago consolidated power over most of it. I think it’s safe to say that Taliban ended up selling more copies than anyone anticipated when it was first published.

I got my hands on this book after finishing Rashid’s more recent (and excellent) Descent into Chaos. Once you get over the oddness of reading about the Taliban as if they are still in power, there’s a lot here of continuing relevance and interest. The book is divided into three sections, the first devoted to the history of the movement, the second to the relationship between Islam and the Taliban, and the third to what Rashid calls “The New Great Game,” the struggle for power and control of the valuable resources in the region by oil companies and regional governments.

There is no doubt that the Taliban showed ingenuity and cunning in their rise to power. As others have pointed out, it’s not sufficient to explain the rise of the Taliban by pointing to their fundamentalism, their backing from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and their promise of a resurgence of Pashtun influence in the country. For other movements led by other leaders (the best example is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader and founder of the Hezb-e Islami) had these things in spades, and nevertheless failed to match the Taliban’s achievements.

These achievements notwithstanding, the overriding impression of the Taliban one takes away from the book is of a group of dangerously ignorant fanatics, ill-equipped not just to provide even the most basic services for the people they claimed the right to rule over, but even to interpret the religious texts they claimed implausibly as the basis for their demented style of rule.

The most frustrating moments in the book for me were those chronicling the futile attempts of aid organizations to secure permission from the Taliban to provide aid to the displaced and the widowed and the orphaned. Having forbidden the education of women, the Taliban then forbade women to see male doctors. After aid organizations responded by hiring a number of foreign female Muslim doctors to provide desperately needed care, the Taliban then decreed that these foreign Muslim female doctors would need to be accompanied at all times by a close male relative. True, this was infeasible, but Allah would provide. (Unfortunately, Allah usually did not get around to it.) As Rashid points out, this sick set of priorities runs contrary to both the letter and the spirit of Islam.

This book would have been almost as upsetting to read in 2000 before the full tragedy unleashed by the Taliban and their guest, bin Laden, became apparent. Afghanistan was in a desperate position when the Taliban began their rise in 1994, so much so that they were often welcomed as an alternative to the squabbling warlords who tore the country apart in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal. By the time Rashid published his book in 2000, the Taliban were themselves, he suggests, on a course to collapse into hostile factions, and were deeply feared and resented in much of the country, especially the North. The Taliban were able to consolidate their rule over much of the Pashtun-dominated South, but they had a much harder time holding territory in Northern parts of the country, where different ethnic minorities saw them as illegitimate occupiers. Looking ahead from 2000, Rashid sees only a few faint glimmers of hope.

Looking ahead from 2009, it’s not clear how much more hopeful the situation really is today. It’s not just that former members of the Taliban, or groups sympathetic to the general aims of the Taliban, are still at war with NATO and the government in Kabul. It’s that the basic conditions for chaos and instability which led to the rise of the Taliban persist to this day. These were formed over a decade of resistance to the Soviets and a decade of fighting after the withdrawal; they are not intractable, but they discouragingly close to it.